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Photo by Michael Schuman

Tuskegee Institute and the George Washington Carver Museum - Tuskegee, Alabama

Peanut margarine and some of the most courageous fighter pilots of World War II share common roots. So do author Ralph Ellison, pioneer research in the field of polio vaccines and the first African-American four-star general.

All come from the only college or university designated a national historic site by the United States Congress: Tuskegee University, originally founded as Normal School for colored teachers, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Today much of it is operated for visitors as Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site.

Illustrious Alumni

Layer upon layer of African-American history can be found here. Booker T. Washington, reared as a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation, founded on the Fourth of July 1881 what is now regarded by educators as the black Harvard. Washington served as the institute's first principal. In the more than 12 decades since, there have only been four others.

One of the world's premier scientists, George Washington Carver, was lured here by Washington in 1896, with a promise of not much money but a many opportunities for self-fulfillment. Carver planned on working at Tuskegee for only a few years. He stayed for 47, until his death in 1943.

By the time of Carver's death, the Tuskegee Airmen were already being trained at nearby Moton Field. A prevailing thought among whites at the time was that African Americans were not intelligent enough to succeed at military aviation. Nearly a thousand black aviators, about a quarter of them Tuskegee Institute students, served the United States with honor, albeit in a segregated unit.

Tuskegee University is today the number one producer of African American aerospace engineers in the United States. Over three quarters of the world's black veterinarians are Tuskegee grads. Ralph Ellison, the first black person to win the National Book Award, for his classic Invisible Man, attended school here, as did Daniel "Chappie" James, the first African-American four-star general.

Booker T. Washington

The center point of the physical campus is located near Lincoln Gates. Here is where one will find the Booker T. Washington Monument, an elaborate statue of the dignified Washington, busting at the vest and raising the veil from the head of an ex-slave emerging from under the Tuskegee founder's right hand, which is pointing the way to progress through education and industry. Washington's 15-room Queen Anne-style red brick home, The Oaks, dates from 1899 and is typically heavy Victorian inside with one exception -- the light and airy European landscape friezes painted high on the walls of the parlor and library on the first floor. The reason for these seeming incongruous art works? Washington had them placed there as inspirations for Tuskegee students to think beyond their worlds.

The Oaks, used by Washington as sort of a quasi-public building for official receptions as well as his private home, was constructed as a massive student project. Students taking courses in everything from architecture to wood crafting lent their expertise, and while those who calculated dimensions were graded in math classes.

The three main rooms downstairs are furnished to period based on early photographs, while the second floor rooms, save Washington's personal study, are void of furnishings, mainly because no photographic evidence exists to use as guidelines. It is upstairs where visitors hear about the land Washington loved and the place where he died. The educator said on his deathbed, "I was born in the South, I have lived and labored in the South and I expect to be buried in the South." A little under eight hours after arriving back home to The Oaks, on November 14, 1915, Washington died of what is believed to be complications associated with diabetes and hypertension in his bedroom, after being rushed back home from a speaking engagement in New York City.

Much of Booker T. Washington's life is further explored in the showplace named in honor of his colleague, the George Washington Carver Museum. Built in 1915 as Tuskegee Institute's new laundry building, it was converted to a museum two years before the scientist's death in 1943. Pick up a telephone receiver here to listen to Washington speak a portion of his famous Atlanta Address, delivered September 18, 1895 at the Atlantic Cotton States and International Exposition.

The oration was saved for posterity by his son Ernest Davidson Washington, who had the foresight to record it. Washington's famous and still arguable words included, In all things that are purely social, we [the races] can be as separate as the fingers yet as one hand in all things essential to human progress. While some interpret that statement as a confirmation that Washington had segregationist views, others say it was merely a reminder from Washington that both black and white can coexist peacefully.

Photo by Michael Schuman Less controversial was Washington's Agricultural School on Wheels. Once a horse-drawn wagon, the movable school graduated into the motorized truck, the color of a blushing United Parcel Service vehicle, displayed in the museum. The School on Wheels was the cornerstone of Tuskegee Institute's extension services for the rural people of Alabama. Instructors on board taught the latest agricultural techniques and preached Tuskegee's doctrines of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

George Washington Carver

And what were those agricultural techniques? Many of them came from the lab of George Washington Carver, relocated here. As one might recall from history class, Carver was known for his concoctions with peanuts, something he explored while advocating the planting of peanuts in the South to replenish the land decimated by too many years of growing King Cotton. Some of his 300 peanut products include foods like the obvious, peanut butter, and the not obvious, peanut mayonnaise and peanut chocolate fudge. Medicines ranged from peanut rubbing oil called Penol Emulsion to peanut laxatives to peanut goiter treatment. In the miscellaneous categories were such products as peanut axle grease, peanut linoleum and peanut diesel fuel.

A small cosmetic business, Carvoline Company, marketed a few of the inventor's works, such as faux ermine lotion and all purpose cream. A portion of the profits was contributed to Carver's research foundation. In addition, the only center for polio treatment for African Americans was also here at Tuskegee. Furthermore, Carver's lab was one of those used to provide the HeLa cell cultures used to grow the polio virus which ultimately led to the discovery of the Salk vaccine. But not everything Carver touched turned out to be a miracle. He used peanut oil (of course) for massaging polio patients. Later research showed that any healing on the part of the patients was due to the massaging techniques, not the use of Penol Emulsion.

More interested in aiding humanity than his bank account, Carver had a ready reply to those who told him he should patent his work and receive compensation, since he could do much more for his people with more money: If I had all that money, I might forget about my people.

Both Washington and Carver are buried on the campus grounds, a short distance from the Booker T. Washington Monument.

If You Go
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, including the George Washington Carver Museum, is open daily, 9-4:30, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Guided tours of The Oaks are offered, times depending on visitation; contact the site in advance or check at the visitor center at the Carver Museum for a schedule. Tours begin at the Carver Museum.

Guided campus tours are also offered, times depending on visitation. However, a self-guided tour is detailed on the official park brochure. Several buildings, such as Thrasher Hall (the science building), Tantum Hall and the Milbank Agricultural Hall, where Carver developed all those peanut products, date from the administration of founder Booker T. Washington.

Admission to all parts of the national historic site is free.

For more information visit Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

Lodging in Tuskegee: Tuskegee University Kellogg Conference Center, 1 Nurses Home Road (on campus just inside Lincoln Gate) (334) 727-3000

Michael Schuman is the author of 30 books and hundreds of articles. He has also won 14 NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) awards for excellence in travel writing.